Jay Ruderman: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to “All About Change”: stories of activism, courage and hope.
Greta Thunberg: This is all wrong.
Simone Biles: I say put mental health first because…
John F. Kennedy: This generation of Americans has already had enough.
Leonardo DiCaprio: I stand before you, not as an expert, but as a concerned citizen.
Jay Ruderman: Each episode we bring you in-depth and intimate conversations with inspiring individuals trying to change the world. And today on our show: Niambe McIntosh.
Niambe McIntosh: People saying like, “Wow, you’re from Dorchester?” You know, almost making it seem like I lived in a warzone. And it was so like, “And you survived?”
Jay Ruderman: Niambe McIntosh is the youngest child of Peter Tosh, the legendary reggae musician and together with Bob Marley -a founding member of ‘The Wailers’. Along with his successful musical career, Tosh was known for the fierce political and social messaging in his songs. He was tragically killed during a home invasion in 1987, when Niambe was only five-years old. She grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, with her mother, where she received a masters in education, and taught in Boston’s public school system for ten years.
Niambe McIntosh: He chose to take his path and educate people through music, and uplift people through music, and I, you know, chose the classroom.
Jay Ruderman: As the executor of the Peter Tosh Estate, Niambe leads various social initiatives. She is inspired by her father’s outspoken views on equal rights, justice, and the legalization of cannabis. But recently, following another family tragedy involving her brother (which we will get to later in our conversation), she has also become active in the field of prison reform:
Niambe McIntosh: The front desk told us that we couldn’t visit him, he’s a ward of the state, he’s not authorized to have visitation, you need to call the jail.
Jay Ruderman: Our interview with Niambe is a special episode commemorating Juneteenth. I hope you enjoy it.
Jay Ruderman: Niambe, nice to meet you. And Pleasure to have you as our guest. Peter Tosh was a legendary musician, and unapologetic about his political and social views. Can you tell us a little bit about him?
Niambe: Definitely. He was a founding member of the whalers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. I’ve met many people that have said that out of the, the members of the whalers my father was one of the most well read and really made a point to kind of educate self educate himself, you know, about the things that were going on in the world and, and to vocalize, you know, an opinion about those things. And so, out of the Wailers, I would say he was the most had the most political voice and so songs like Get up, stand up, you know, were birthed out of, you know, some of my father’s ideas
[get up stand up]
He was also one that had a lot of the, the musical talent. So he taught Bob Marley how to play the guitar. He My father knew how to play, I don’t know 21, 20+ instruments over the course of his career, but when Chris Blackwell came in the the head of Island Records to manage the whalers, he then changed it to Bob Marley and the Wailers And so when he saw that he was being kind of pushed as a backup vocalist, he realized that wasn’t really his place.
Peter Tosh: Well the time came, after 12 years, to see what was inside of me, and that’s what I did. Because I did not come on this earth to be a background vocal.
Niambe: He had to, you know, respectfully disagree yet, as he would say it and and transition on to his own career. He never felt like he was supposed to be a background vocalist. He really stepped into his more political voice, you know,writing the iconic song and album, “legalize it” furthering his career with “equal rights and justice”. So throughout his career, he’s always made a had a political voice a voice for the people and wanted to kind of uplift people through his music.
Jay Ruderman: Your dad was a devout Rastafarian. But the Rastafari movement was not always accepted in Jamaican society. Can you can you talk about that and, and what your dad faced as as a Rastafarian and being very outspoken in his beliefs?
Niambe McIntosh: Yeah, um, although many people left the church in the 1930s to form this kind of to practice, you know, Rastafarian spirituality. They were still a minority in the country. And so most of Jamaica is is Christian. And so black people are choosing to, to not comb their hair anymore and to wear dreadlocks and to not adopt or continue to practice Eurocentric ideals of how they dress. Many people unfortunately, due to their own indoctrination, view that as something that was bad, and then when you look at the colonial rule, the Rastafari movement was a direct opposition to everything that they were trying to enforce. And so Rastas were often targeted by the government. There’s been battles there’s been huge massacres around the Rastafarian movement. And so throughout history, there’s there’s always been a target, unfortunately, of brutality. And when we think about, you know, my father, in the 1970s, and in the 1980s he was constantly targeted by the police, there’s been times when he Police has come into his house into his home over a spliff or draw weed, as he would say, and be pulled out of his house and brutalized he’s been, you know, taken to jail. He’s been almost beaten to death because of his stance on cannabis legalization. He was an outward advocate, he made a point to not only talk the talk, but but walk the walk and embody what cannabis legalization should look like, you know, it was very much a part of his lifestyle. He used it throughout the day, you know, and it was something that he had no shame in.
Peter Tosh: The herb. Well the herb is–like, you live in Babylon you see everyone smoke cigarette. 9 out of 10 people smoke cigarette. And although 9 out of 10 people smoke cigarette, it is destructive to the human body. Because herb was created scientific and spiritual for the use of man by the creator. Seen? Then the devil came and said, “It is you and I,” and he invented cigarette, so he can have people on this death trip.
Niambe McIntosh: And because of that, that stance unfortunately, he was a target of police brutality. And his views made it difficult for record companies to want to fully promote him. You know, I would say not only was it his views, but also his complexion. colorism is is still and and racism is still prevalent within our entertainment industry. And so he unfortunately, did suffer economically. But it wasn’t because people didn’t want to hear the truth. You know, it was more so the powers that be didn’t want to promote it.
Jay Ruderman: Do you think that your dad really didn’t live to see his ultimate success, I mean, winning a Grammy and, you know, becoming recognized by the Jamaican government for the cultural icon that he was.
Niambe McIntosh: I believe that the Spirit always lives, you know, past the flesh. And although he’s not physically here with us to see the progress, I know that his spirit, you know, definitely lives on is able to celebrate everything that that his his message and music continues to accomplish. He was a man before his time and he felt that way, you know, he felt that his music will will live longer and inspire, you know, generations to come in a way that he he’s not going to witness but in a way that he knows will happen.
Jay Ruderman: So how did your dad’s legacy shape your own path as an educator and activist?
Niambe McIntosh: I think that the the educational spirit is something that I definitely inherited. You know, I he didn’t raise me I was too young to be raised by him. But I’ve always loved children. I’ve always loved to help people. And so although prior to becoming an educator, I was an engineer for for several years, I’ve always felt a calling to kind of get into the educational system. And so it wasn’t until after kind of taking over my dad’s estate being an educator for a long time that I started to see the connection that we we definitely are. I chose the path of education, except he had the gift of a voice, you know, and I didn’t get that gene, the singing gene. So he chose to take his path and educate people through music and uplift people through music. And I, you know, chose the classroom.
Jay Ruderman: So you were born in Jamaica, but you you were raised in Boston, how did that come about?
Niambe McIntosh: My mom is actually a Boston native, born and raised. And so she met my dad in Boston, and fell in love, you know, he, he pursued her very hard. And she at first was like, you know, you’re a musician. And, you know, we all know the story of musicians, but they ended up having a connection, and she moved to Jamaica, and then had my brother and I, and lived there for many years.
Jay Ruderman: So as a Bostonian, I mean, I, I’m well aware of the of the history of racism in this city, what was it like growing up as a young black woman, as a child, in this city,
Niambe McIntosh: You know, you go through things thinking that they’re the norm, you know, I grew up in inner city, Boston, in the 90s. At the time, there was a lot of gun violence, the Boston Public Schools, very poorly run. And then just low expectations. And my mom always pushed academics first. So we were always looking for the best academic opportunity. But I was able to very much see as I got older, the stark contrast between you know, what more affluent communities had access to when it came to education, and the quality of education and even just a peace of mind, you know, I became accustomed to just hearing noise outside. And it wasn’t until I got older that I realized all of the stresses and the microaggressions that, you know, people within certain communities have to go through an experience and almost and actually normalize, unfortunately, and then have to deal with certain things that really aren’t the norm. And as we get older, we start to realize that we have to, you know, shift, and that’s why I went into education, seeing that there was a need, you know, within my community to see people that look like, for young people to see me. As someone that looked like them, you know, to be able to guide them and have them understand that there is a path out and education is always that tool.
Jay Ruderman: And what specific memories do you have of violence in your community when you were growing up as a child?
Niambe McIntosh: I remember all of the gangs that were around my neighborhood. I’ve seen shootouts, I’ve witnessed, you know, people being shot and, oddly enough, I became used to hearing gunshots in the 90s, it was something that I didn’t realize wasn’t a normal thing. I think that what allowed me to stay grounded was my mother made a point to keep my home, you know, inside our home, a safe community, and in a safe environment and peaceful. And so although you know I lived in the inner city, I’ve always felt comfortable at home, I’ve always felt safe. And my mother would, we would say hello to a lot of the boys in the neighborhood and they would always treat us with respect. So I never felt like we were a target, you know, or like we were someone that people were after. And so it’s it’s kind of ironic that although I was in the heart of all of this violence, oddly enough, I never felt threatened because of kind of our outlook on life and really trying to dig deeper than the surface, you know. Young lost boys, often they can have this aggression, but it was never towards us. They’ve always treated us with respect, oddly enough. And so I think that when we look at the problems within the community, it’s not just this blanket, you know, one size fits all that makes up the humans that are going through these crises, there’s always a root. And when you kind of can see the root problem, then you can treat people differently and in return, get people to treat you with a level of respect as well. I’m sure I was affected, you know, and I’m but I know that I’m blessed to have had a mom that kept us with a positive outlook on on life and kept us grounded. And, and I’m grateful that we, you know, up until, unfortunately, my brother’s story that we you know, never been a target of violence.
Jay Ruderman: Sounds like your mom was a real, you know, pillar in your life?
Niambe McIntosh:Definitely. Definitely, definitely. She’s a remarkable woman.
Jay Ruderman: I want to talk about your brother Jawara, can you tell us a little bit about him? I mean, he was the one sibling that that you grew up with?
Niambe McIntosh: Yes. Um, Jawara and I both kind of grew up in in Boston and very likable, lovable guy and started to kind of dabble in music through just like freestyling hip hop and you know, I would beat box for him in our teen years. And it wasn’t until his early 20s where a friend of my dad’s actually just kind of said hey, you’re gonna do reggae.
And kind of put them in the studio and put them with a band and I remember the first time I saw him perform I had goosebumps because he had this, he had this natural gift to be able to not only command an audience, but he also sounded just like my dad and I was able to see my dad through my brother. And he was this you know, larger than life personality. Commanded any space he was in to the point where as a little sister, you could definitely be annoyed by it sometimes. But as I got older, I started to respect his ability to always be himself, you know, I think that throughout throughout life, we’re kind of taught to adapt to our environment and conform almost, you know, in to kind of lose a little bit of ourselves. So that we fit in. And Jawara was someone who did just the opposite. He said, I’m gonna be myself no matter what space I’m in and did that without any apology. And so he was just this, this this lovable, individual, but also just very funny and charming. He was extremely charming.
[jawarra music peaks back, then fades under]
Jay Ruderman: I saw some clips of him singing and you know, he was he was talented. Talk about the fateful Father’s Day weekend in 2013. And what happened to your brother?
Niambe McIntosh: Yes, um, I had gotten a call collect call from him Father’s Day weekend in 2013, that he had been arrested. And I honestly initially thought that it was something that would, you know, be put behind us, he was arrested in Bergen County in New Jersey, while driving on the highway, due to possession of cannabis. And so, I received the call, I was definitely annoyed that he had gotten himself in trouble, you know, I was like, kind of frustrated, like, why did you get yourself in trouble, that’s, you know, so reckless of you. And I remember having that kind of initial thought. And then if it wasn’t Massachusetts, he would have actually had a hearing, you know, the next the, the Monday of you know, that that followed, but in New Jersey, where they really have this kind of prison economy, he didn’t have a hearing for another three months. And that’s when my family drove down to New Jersey to kind of support him and, and be there for him. And that’s when we heard the prosecution offer a 20 year plea. Jawara sat there, you know, in an orange jumpsuit, I’ve never seen him. We’ve never been involved in the criminal justice system. And so just the whole energy of the space just had us feeling extremely just abandoned. Fortunately, he was able to make bail three months later, in December of that year, but he had gone back and forth to New Jersey. For pretrial motions, up until 2017, they were constantly saying that, you know, “This is the best deal that you can get. If you don’t take the plea, you know, you’ll you’ll definitely face the full 20 years or full 15 years.” And so they would lower it down to 10. And then, you know, really try to convince them to take it and lower it down to five. And we were torn as a family, you know, it took me a while to recognize that it was our human right to consume cannabis. And it was through that experience where I made that spiritual growth to really want to fight for what we believed in. But we also knew the legacy of Bergen County and so, we decided that it would be a good idea to take the plea. And so in 2016, my brother decided to take the plea and it was in 2017 In January, where he turned himself in to Bergen County Jail. I think the plea had gotten down to around like five years and he was told that he probably only serve maybe a year because he did you know, some time served and unfortunately, he was in there for about a month before I get a call from my mother she was extremely frantic on the phone and she’s she’s crying and she’s she’s like Niambeh, there’s a there’s a surgeon on the phone He’s saying something about Gamel. That’s what we called him. It was his middle name. And and so the surgeon says to me, hi Niambe, I’m calling from Hackensack Medical Center and we need to perform a life saving medical procedure on your brother. He’s been attacked and he’s suffered a traumatic brain injury, he has a lot of bleeding on his brain, are we able to perform this surgery. And so we had no idea what happened, you know, the jail didn’t really call us but we did authorize the surgery. And we immediately went to New Jersey and Hackensack Medical Hospital to to be by his side. And we got there.
The front desk told us that we couldn’t visit him, he’s a ward of the state, he’s not authorized to have visitation you need to call the jail. And then when we call the jail, they made a point to say like, we don’t normally allow visitors, you know, even though he was in their custody, and they failed to protect him, we didn’t have the right. He didn’t have the right as a human to have his family by his side to support him while he was fighting for his life. And so we all walked into the ICU. And when we stepped into the room, that’s when we saw that he had half of his locks kind of shaved off, he was connected to oxygen with tubes down his throat. His face was swollen, a neck brace on and he had a handcuff around his ankle. And he was surrounded by correctional officers. And that was the moment that I knew that my life was forever changed, that I had a different purpose. He actually remained in the ICU for for three months before we were able to get him home to Boston. He was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for over 500 days before we were able to get him home. My mom and I cared for him for roughly two years before he succumbed to his injuries and passed away in July of 2020.
Jay Ruderman: I’m so sorry for your loss. And I can tell from our discussion how this still is so difficult for you and your family. Can you talk about what happened to Jawara and what the legalization movement and prison reform and how how you see all these things and what what actions have you in the foundation taken?
Niambe McIntosh: I think it’s very important that people recognize that cannabis legalization is so much more about social justice. It’s so much more about equity. The war on drugs has truly decimated communities and broken families. My brother has four children, you know, this is a pain and a trauma that will live with all of us, you know, forever. And so when we look at legalization, and cannabis prohibition, particularly with its dark history, so many people have been criminalized over cannabis. And often the police department has justified the hyper violence and brutality against people of color through cannabis, by saying that they go, I smelled cannabis or this person had cannabis on him. When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, you know, the police leaked, you know, high school video footage of him, you know, getting in trouble over having cannabis on him, it’s been used to really dehumanize people so that they can justify black deaths. And the power of legalization will allow for that to no longer be used to target you know, people of color in the in this country. And so there has to be a shift where we we recognize that not only has cannabis, you know, never harmed anyone, not only is it a plant that has the power to really put the body in full balance, but it’s also, the legalization also can help to repair the harms that have been impacted on particularly people of color and black families and black communities. And now, you know, we’ve seen it transfer over into more of a white community, and now we see it treated as a health epidemic, you know, unfortunately, but when it was, you know, people of color that were going through these issues, they were criminalized. And so I’ve seen you know, drug addicts and and dealers and all of these people kind of go through this system that really just broke apart part communities and and no one ever came in to really look at how do we change change things? How do we give people access to better education? How do we give people access to jobs so that they don’t have to choose crime to feed their families? How do we help people that are addicted to hard narcotics and drugs, versus criminalizing them and locking them up and ripping and tearing apart families. I’ve seen this all growing up, and I definitely see a shift in how we now look at the drug epidemic and how the addiction problem that we have and and I definitely wish that we had that mindset back when it was you know, predominantly people of color and black faces and, and families that were affected by it.
Jay Ruderman: Yeah. You talked about that you were a teacher, but initially, you studied engineering. What? What made you decide to make that transition to become a teacher in the Boston Public Schools?
Niambe McIntosh: Well, growing up, I’ve always loved children. I was, you know, would always just find myself hanging with younger family members and cousins that had children and always wanting to just be around young people. But I’ve always had a gift to like, want to do things with my hands and be the person like opening up a VCR to try to see how it works or try to fix things. And in my mind, as a young person, I was like, Okay, if I like, you know, fixing things, I should be an engineer. And so I pursued that, that that path, not really having any guidance on what engineering was, but just kind of hearing about it as a concept of that you do. And I knew that I wanted to at least be able to provide for my family and engineers would be a career that could do that. But as I got into the field that I was in, it was engineering design. And being a black woman, I’ve worked at actually Gloucester engineering, and I was the youngest, I think it was like 21, you know, fresh out of college, youngest person working there, everyone else was like 50 Plus, but I was also the only female engineer. And I was the only black woman engineer I remember people saying, like, wow, you’re from Dorchester, you know, almost making it seem like I lived in a war zone, you know, it was so like, and you survived? And just never really feeling like I fit in, and it was actually one day where I just Googled kind of teaching in Boston and found a program called Boston teacher residency, and the person running the program was my former high school math teacher. And so I pretty much took a leap and applied to the program. And it’s a program pretty much where often marketed towards career changers that want to get into education. And so it’s an accelerated master’s program. And so I transitioned and got my master’s in education. And although I love young, young children and wanted to teach elementary, the need was in high school, math and special education. And so I said, All right, I have the tools to, to serve the the population with the highest need. And although I would love kindergarteners, and little kids, I’ll jump into where the need is needed the most and decided to do high school math and special education.
Jay Ruderman: And did you enjoy it?
Niambe McIntosh: I did, I did. I love young people, I always say that, um, you got to be a little bit crazy, you know, to teach. And, and kind of demand the respect and but also to be able to be humble, like to be able to apologize to be able to know that nothing is personal when dealing with young people tha are going through what they’re going through and bringing their kind of baggage to school every day. Nothing’s personal. And so when they know that they are respected unconditionally, they often are able to give you that respect as well.
Jay Ruderman: When you taught, like, what was one of your memories of like a success or a failure or something that you learned from while you were teaching?
Niambe McIntosh: I can give you actually a quick story, I had a student that came into my, my classroom, just extremely angry, this is like first thing in the morning, and he’s complaining about just everything that’s going on. In the day, he’s like, you know, what, I’m just tired of being here, Miss Mac, the schools just aggravating me. And I’m just frustrated. And so I gave this child was like a 14 year old young boy, a banana, you know, and so he eats the banana, and I watch his whole demeanor drastically change within seconds. And so just like that, he’s in this uplift did bubbly spirit, um, he was hungry, he had no idea that he was hungry. but that behavior could have turned into, you know, something that teachers end up, you know, chastising, and getting him in trouble, and eventually probably getting expelled because he didn’t know how to deal with his emotions as a 14 year old, not realizing that he was hungry. But because I was able to say, have a conversation with him, he then was able to, you know, start every day realizing that he needs to eat to be able to, you know, function throughout the rest of the day, as many of us do. And those are the things you know, the lessons that I think are, are just missing from education within the Boston Public School System.
Jay Ruderman: And on the other hand, when you see, when you had a student who said, Listen, I’ve decided that, you know, I’ve given up on education, I’m going, you know, into the gangs. Did you? Do you ever take that personally, did that ever, like eat at you and say, wow, you know, I wish I could have turned him around.
Niambe McIntosh: You know I can think of a few that we weren’t able to reach. I find that there have been a few that were exceptionally intelligent, young, black, African American boys, but they were very much involved in gangs, but they would come to school in the ninth grade reading at an 11th grade level, you know, able to really tackle the the work effortlessly. But, you know, they found their community, they found their, their nurturing within that gang environment. So no matter what we did, to try to give them every single opportunity. We weren’t able to get them to kind of stay in school and graduate, a lot of them ended up kind of dropping out and falling into that street lifestyle, you know, and were, were articulate enough to say, you know, this is the choice that I’m making, and I choose to deal with the consequences when I get older, you know, I am enjoying this lifestyle.
But it’s something that I you know, I reflect on, like, what type of academic environment do we need that can really help truly serve? You know, those that that we lose, you know, that don’t make it through our Boston Public School System? What is it that we need to do as a society to lift up our most vulnerable population?
Jay Ruderman: Well, you have a very holistic view of your community and where you grew up and where you served. So I’m going to ask you a big question. But what what would you like to see in terms of reforms for America’s justice system?
Niambe McIntosh: Ah, that is a big question. I think that a lot of these prisons in jails need to be completely reformed. Most people that are in jail are dealing with a medical health issue. And that’s a psychological health issue, whether it be you know, people that are dealing with gun violence, or people that are dealing with addiction. And then the second thing is poverty. You know, if we can address this from an equal rights and justice standpoint, we need to serve basically serve our lowest and most vulnerable population and then you will see less crime. Every study has shown that crime has a direct correlation with poverty. And so you see less crime when you give people opportunities to a better education, when you give people opportunities to jobs where they can afford to live, you know. And so that’s another area that I would definitely be promoted a proponent of and then ultimately, the full legalization of cannabis, and not moving towards legalizing but then trying to have so many stipulations and regulations around quantities or, or THC caps or still targeting the unregulated markets so that the cannabis businesses can thrive but really looking at a way to bring the legacy market as I would like to call it, people have called it the an unregulated market, but really the people that have been selling cannabis and making it possible for cannabis to the industry to thrive and be successful, really looking at a way for them to laterally enter into the market. And it shouldn’t be that people that have been the founders of the movement and created the industry no longer have a place in the legal and recreational industry.
Jay Ruderman: So powerful. Finally ,Niambe, what’s your favorite Peter Tosh song?
Niambe McIntosh: My favorite Peter Tosh song is in Jamaica, this word is considered a actual a bad word. It’s, but it’s called au Bumba clot.
And one of the reasons this song is one of my favorites is because it starts off by saying I came upon this land to guide and teach my fellow men but one thing I can’t overstand which is a play on words is why man doesn’t love his brother, man.
And so it really speaks and that’s when he just says Oh, but it’s not like saying, you know, damn or, you know, a level of frustration that you know, you come to be an educator, but at the same and help people but at the same time, people just have this lack of desire to, to join in on that good fight and to love one another like and so at times, we can all get frustrated and and although society has called words like that, curse words or bad words, I like to call them power words. You know, it’s words that.. that can sometimes that sometimes we just have to use. there’s no other word that can really have the impact of some of those power words. So it’s one of my favorite because it’s something that resonates with me as an educator and as an activist, you know, I am a lover of all humans and want to see us all, you know, get to a better place together. And it gets frustrating at times when there’s a constant Push against good.
Jay Ruderman: Well Niambe I really want to thank you for joining us on all inclusive, you were such a powerful guest. And I learned so much, I wish you and the Peter Tosh foundation to go from strength to strength. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Niambe McIntosh: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I would say that if anyone wants to continue to learn more, just, you know, check out Peter tosh.com Or at Peter Tosh on any social media platform. So thank you so much for having me.
Jay Ruderman: Definitely. Thank you.
Jay Ruderman: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Matt Litman and Mijon Zulu.
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